by Alison Sesi
As Jamie has worked closely with Brian (May) over many years, I felt it would be something special to do an interview with him. I finally caught up with him at the end of the month when he had a short breather between gigs and projects. I asked some serious questions, but it was a lot o fun too! Here’s a brief synopsis of our conversation.
A: Firstly, I wanted to ask you about your collaboration with Freddie – in a radio interview (1) you did last year, you were talking about playing ‘Crazy Little Thing Called love’ to accompany him at a charity ballet event which took place at the London Coliseum in October’ 79. According to a book written by Paul Gambaccini (2), the gig happened within two days of the UK release of ‘Crazy little Thing Called Love’, and when Freddie did that song for an encore, he was trying to get the audience to sing along but, of course, they didn’t know the words! Do you remember anything about that?
J: Really? I’ve only got vague memories of that gig – it just happened so quickly – we did the rehearsal for it and then we did the gig. (See FAQs)
A: I just wondered if you remembered because I found that amusing! Moving on to when you started working with Brian, that was a lot later, wasn’t it?
J: It was ’93 and it came about through Spike (Edney). I’d known Spike since the early seventies; we were in bands doing the same circuit – his was a ‘souly’, groovy band, and mine was a teeny-bop band called Merlin, who were a kind of rival band to Queen, funnily enough! Then Spike and I Iost touch – the next thing I heard was that he was working with Bob Geldof and recommended me for that. Then Spike jumped ship to join the Brian May Band, leaving me with Geldof; he then recommended me to Brian and I got a call to ask: “Do you want to come and audition?”
A: And the rest is history!
J: Yes, we know the rest, don’t we?
A: You’re self-taught on guitar – that must have required quite a bit of commitment!
J: I just needed to do it – I had to play the guitar or I would do nothing. I had this passion for it – I still do, of course- I saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in America where I was mostly brought up and thought, “that’s it”, and saw all the girls running after them and thought “That’s definitely what I want!”
A: I get the picture! You were recently involved in doing a guitar master-class far the Sarah Goodall guitar school (3) – could you tell me more about that?
J: Yes, it was a lot more intimate than the talk I do at the Queen Fan Club Convention, where really the whole thing is based around Queen – but with Sarah’s it was more about the guitar and how it works. Spike and I have done another talk and question/answer session for the E4 channel to be shown in September or October – we were guests of the School of Performing Arts.
A: So we’ll be watching out for you on TV! You have the SAS Band, the World Famous Red Sox and Los Pacaminos, three different projects? .
J: They are, though the SAS and Red Sox kind of intertwine – Red Sox is a fun band, a stripped-down version of the SAS Band, without the all star singers. Also, Spike and I do something similar in Norway with a local bass player and drummer who has a long name so we just call him ‘OJ’; I was on stage and couldn’t remember the bass player’s name, so announced the band as ‘OJ and the Simpsons’ as a joke, which stuck! I’ve also just come back from Norway where Los Pacaminos (4) were doing a festival. The vocals of that band are shared almost equally between four singers, including myself (5), so the focus of attention is always shifting which makes it interesting.
A: You’re best known as a guitarist, but it seems you really enjoy singing as well.
J: I started out learning to play the guitar when I was ten or eleven, but when a vocal was due to come in, nobody was singing! So I thought, “I’ll do it.” But I consider singing as something I do when I’m playing the guitar; a person like Elvis or even Freddie would regard playing the guitar as something they do while they’re singing – for me it’s the other way round.
A: Sure. You’ve also been involved in recording two albums for ‘Hiding in Public’. How did that come about? .
J: A guy called David Holland got in touch with a friend of mine as he was looking to find someone to record the songs he was writing. That friend recommended me to sing and play guitar. We’re now recording songs for the third album.
A: Do you have a favourite ‘Hiding in Public’ song? .
J: I quite like ‘Satellite’ and ‘Closing In’ – that one has that kind of ‘gospel-y’, open, exposed feel about it.
A: You have Anglo-American parentage and were brought up in the USA and Japan. Does that sort of upbringing give you advantages or disadvantages as a musician?
J: I was brought up in the States, but would come to the UK for the school summer vacation. I’d be influenced by what was going on in the UK, and go back to the US and be influenced by what was going on there. Also, I went to eleven different schools – my father was in the US Air Force – so being on the road is like being at home! The two years I spent in Japan weren’t like being in Japan – we were on an air base, so you could be in America. A lot of the black GIs were listening to James Brown, The Temptations, Sly and the Family Stone, Wilson Pickett and Otis Reading and that’s where I got my love for all that stuff. And then Hendrix – how about that? There was this guy singing with the best soul voice you’ve ever heard and playing rock guitar like an alien! And with this incredible stage persona – you can take most forms of music and find them in Jimi Hendrix.
A: He certainly was a big influence on Brian. .
J: Yes, Brian and I often sigh and stare into the distance thinking about Jimi! We start talking about him and then in the end we just have to say: “Oh dear, oh dear!” Brian gets a lot closer to it than I do but we both aspire to his level of greatness. Hendrix was such an innovator and Brian is also an innovator – that’s why I’ve always been a huge fan of Brian’s playing. On one hand I can count the guitar players who’ve been a huge influence on me – Brian is one of them and I’m lucky enough to be playing with him!
A: It must be absolutely your dream job!
J: Yes it is! Who could ask for anything more!
A: What’s it like working with Brian?
J: It’s an education – I always thought I was a bit of a stickler for detail, but Brian will hear it if I’m playing one note wrong and the difference that it makes! He hears the whole picture in his head and can see the overall thing but at the same time pick out something – the smallest detail – which is affecting the overall outcome. It sometimes makes me think, “I hope I’m doing this right!” But I do know as long as I do get it right, Brian’s full of praise and he’s great to work with, and Roger too, obviously. You know he’s a great drummer, but once you start playing with him, you realise he’s the driving force, the engine behind the band.
A: I could tell from the concerts I went to, starting with Brixton, just how well everyone was working together.
J: The Brixton one, well that was really on the edge – we’d rehearsed it but that was our first gig; we were a bit nervous!
A: I think people realised, but the atmosphere was incredible – everyone was rooting for you all! .
J: That’s right, they were willing us to do well.
A: When you were playing at the first public performance by Queen + Paul Rodgers at the Hall of Fame Awards at Hackney in November 2004, did you get the impression then that this was going to take off like it did? .
J: We’d just finished and we were walking out to the truck to listen to it – the playback of what we’d just done – as we were walking across the car park we went a little bit quiet, and Brian said: “This really works, doesn’t it? Something’s happening here”, and I said: “I can completely hear it – it’s like the band’s taking off again”, and he said: “Absolutely – I’m very excited” and there was this glint in his eye!
A: You haven’t been involved in the recent recordings of the new material?
J: No, they don’t need me for that. They’ve got a guitar player!
A: But if and when they go out on tour with it, you’ll be back there presumably – a whole load of stuff to learn!
J: I hope so! It’s going to be really good stuff; I’ve heard a couple of snippets – it was a long time ago – I’m not even sure whether that’s going to go into what they’re doing now. But it sounded really good – Paul works very well with Brian and Roger.
A: That’s fantastic – thank you so much, Jamie! ——-
.1) The interview is no longer available
.2) ‘Track Records’, 1985
.4) The band name was made up, coming from the expression ‘pack ’em in’ but it was later found out that, with a slightly different spelling, it means ‘street urchin’ in a South American dialect’
.5) The other three are Paul Young, Matt Irving and Drew Barfield.